The New York Times leads with President George W. Bush’s vow–which “stunned and dismayed” many in military and political circles–issued to congressional Republicans on Friday, to keep defense spending lean in the coming year, pending the outcome of the new secretary of defense’s complete review of the Pentagon’s priorities and needs. The Los Angeles Times lead covers a consequence of a tighter-than-expected Bush defense budget: an emerging debate among Republican advocates of space-based missile defense systems over whether to go for the horribly expensive limited land-based version given halting life by the Clinton administration, or for an unspeakably horribly expensive land-sea-space version. The top national story at the Washington Post is President Bush’s meeting on Sunday with congressional Democrats, during which he was “peppered with barbed questions.” USA Today goes with the FAA’s recent change of allowing air traffic controllers to bring airplanes up to 20 percent closer to each other than the rules allow before they face the penalty that until last month had been applied to them as soon as they busted that distance. (The paper doesn’t flat out say what the penalty is but implies it’s mandatory additional training.) The idea is to induce controllers–who under the old system often added a mile or more between planes to avoid getting sanctioned–to help reduce flight delays. The paper says at least one group of tower supervisors thinks that what’s needed is more enforcement, not less, but the FAA replies that under the new system, controllers can still be disciplined if their actions are considered unsafe, regardless of the separations involved.
The NYT lead says that in his remarks about defense spending, Bush revealed he was “not prepared to accept on face value” the view, now commonly heard in Congress and the Pentagon, that it must go up somewhere between $50 billion and $100 billion per year to avert a dangerous decline in readiness. The Times dips into experts’ thinking to suggest that one way to make the defense budget adequate is to rethink and update the strategy behind it. For instance, two of the countries viewed as potential belligerents, Iraq and North Korea, are not as powerful as current Pentagon plans assume. And the story surveys the cost issues surrounding the main weapons upgrades being contemplated by the services, noting for instance that the Air Force’s newest fighter would be so expensive that many older planes would have to be kept around anyway, incurring more maintenance costs. One alternative that’s not mentioned and rarely is: Replacing current weapons with follow-ons that result from putting key upgraded components into the original, tried-and-true design, yielding an equally or nearly equally numerous force of new planes, tanks, etc. with better capabilities while avoiding huge new R and D investments.
The LAT lead says that the more expensive comprehensive version of missile defense advocated by many in Washington these days is based on the Navy’s Aegis ship-based anti-cruise-missile system. The story takes the time to sing its alleged praises, saying that many “believe the system could be devised to knock down enemy missiles in the first few minutes of ascent–the so-called boost phase–before the enemy warhead released decoys that could confuse interceptor missiles. Since the Aegis system relies on ships, it could be moved from place to place and could be used to protect allies, as Bush has said he wants to do.” And, the paper continues, later on this system could be complemented by space-based lasers. But there is no mention of the most notable actual use of the original Aegis system: Mistakenly identifying a normally operating Iranian airliner as an attacking Iranian fighter and shooting it down, killing several hundred civilians.
The WP says that Bush was questioned by House Democrats on such topics as his budget math, on whether he would earmark money for election reform, would take a stand on whether to allow statistical sampling in the census, or would retain the first black judge on the 4th Federal Appeals Circuit, who is now serving under a temporary Clinton appointment. The Post says Bush gave few direct answers. Which may explain why the paper was reduced to interpreting body language when Bush was pressed by a congresswoman to reconcile his recent executive order prohibiting international groups from receiving U.S. money if they use other funds to conduct abortion-related activities with his stance that faith-based organizations could receive public money for providing social services. In response, says the paper, “Bush looked down.” And never gave an answer that satisfied his audience. Curiously, the answer didn’t get into the story. Ah, but the quips–somehow they always make it. The WP dutifully reports that Bush waved to liberal Congressman Barney Frank, saying, “Thanks for coming. … Thanks for not asking a question.”
The WP reports inside that the merchandise, mostly home furnishings, taken by Bill and Hillary Clinton as personal gifts when they left town includes items that the donors thought they were giving to the White House, not the Clintons. The paper cites thank you notes to two of the donors, one of them signed by Sen. Clinton, that certainly appear to acknowledge that the gifts were contributions to the government and not them. The story quotes two former IRS commissioners saying that if indeed gifts given to the White House were taken by the Clintons, that would be “improper” in the words of one and a “conversion of government property” in the words of the other. It appears from the story that these vexed gifts were not included among those the Clintons just agreed to pay for.
More Clinton news in the Wall Street Journal: It seems that the investment firm Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co. has been getting more than a few irate phone calls from clients about the $100,000 speech Bill Clinton is giving at the company’s conference tonight. There was enough phoned-in hostility that the company had to come up with an e-mail advising brokers how to respond.
The NYT business section detects a new reason being offered by some companies for their recent lousy performances: It was the election’s fault. Companies caught by the paper saying in one form or another that it was the chad, stupid include: Sega, eToys, Charles Schwab, Ameritrade, Beyond.com, Fidelity Bancorp, Lillian Vernon, Barnes & Noble. Stand by for the next wrinkle this summer: the election baby boomlet.